Sunday, March 6, 2022

Pleasing as Angels

We've covered “Hallowed be thy name.” We've heard much about “Thy kingdom come.” Now, Jesus invites us to add one more phrase, this time with a qualifier. The phrase? “Thy will be done.” The qualifier? “On earth as it is in heaven” – that is, using heaven as the benchmark, matching earth to how it's done in heaven. And if heaven is the benchmark for what we're asking, we ought to know more about how God's will is done in heaven – otherwise, we can't know what we're asking! So who in heaven is there for God's will to be done by?

Thankfully, the author of Hebrews fills us in. First, in heaven we would find “God, the Judge of all” (Hebrews 12:23). Hopefully, we already knew that. We recently spent a Sunday meditating on what it means to pray to “our Father who art in heaven,” after all (Matthew 6:9). So God, who is everywhere, is most especially, and in the relevant way, in heaven. Second, if we could look into heaven, we'd see there “Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant” (Hebrews 12:24). After all, when Stephen was about to die, he “gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55). But we've meditated on the ascension before, and we confess this truth in our creed every Sunday. I trust we share an understanding here.

Third, the author of Hebrews reminds us we'll meet “myriad angels in festal gathering” (Hebrews 12:22). See into heaven, and you'll meet more angels than you can count without a very fancy calculator! A prophet named Micaiah had a vision of “the LORD sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left” (1 Kings 22:19). Jesus referred to “the angels of heaven” (Matthew 24:36) and to “angels in heaven” (Mark 12:25). Luke calls them “the heavenly host” (Luke 2:13), while John saw in heaven “many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands” (Revelation 5:11). From references to different sorts of heavenly beings in the Bible, later Christians assembled the clues and recognized nine distinct choirs of angels in heaven: seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominions, virtues, powers, principalities, archangels, and angels.1 These all dwell in heaven, pure spirits created there by God for his supreme purposes.

But heaven isn't just for God and his angels any more. Fourth, the author of Hebrews reminds us that there we find “the church of the firstborn enrolled in heaven..., the spirits of the righteous made perfect” (Hebrews 12:23). “Rejoice, O heaven..., and you saints and apostles and prophets!” (Revelation 18:20). The patriarchs and matriarchs, the judges and prophets, righteous kings and priests, Joseph and Mary, Peter and Paul and the apostles, and on and on – they're there. Spirits of the martyrs, of the confessors, of the blessed – untold spirits have, through Jesus Christ, been welcomed there. In this life and on this earth, many have lived by great faith; and now, being received into heaven, they've been “made perfect” (Hebrews 12:23), having received the fullness of sanctification. If even on earth the Bible refers to Christians as 'saints,' as 'holy ones,' in spite of our holiness still being mixed with our vulnerability to sin, how much more is it appropriate to celebrate humans in heaven, the Church Triumphant, as truly and fully saints – those who are perfected in holiness for good?

So now we know: heaven is where God is, where Jesus is, where angels are, where the victorious saints are. So how is it we say God's will is done in heaven? Because heaven has to be our starting point for this prayer.

First, in heaven, God acts directly and sovereignly without restriction: “Our God is in the heavens: he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3). “He does according to his will among the host of heaven... and none can stay his hand or say to him, 'What have you done?'” (Daniel 4:35). Some actions, God directly wills and so causes. God causes a seraph to exist and ignites its flaming love. God communicates to a cherub, acting on its profound intellect. Other actions, even in heaven, God permissively and concurrently wills. An archangel decides to move from one place to another – but that couldn't happen unless God not only allowed it but enabled it, by causing the archangel's good capacity to move. All things in heaven happen purely by God's pleasure.

But in our earth, this rebellious realm, God is less pleased but still acts in the same kinds of ways. “He does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth... All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing” (Daniel 4:35). “Whatever is willed in heaven will be done” on earth (1 Maccabees 3:60). In some things, God directly wills and causes, as when he wills water to become wine. There are other actions God permissively and concurrently wills. I stand up and preach this morning, but that could not happen without God sustaining me in existence, having the air carry the vibrations made by my vocal cords to your ear drums, having your brains process the vibrations as intelligible language, and so on. And that's true whether I'm preaching a good sermon or a very bad sermon – God could break the chains of secondary cause-and-effect, could withhold his concurrence, but he wills not to. Insofar as he allows it, he wills it.

And whether we're talking heaven or earth, all things that happen fall into one of those two camps – either God wills to cause them, or God wills to permit them and so concurs to enable created beings to act successfully. In this regard, when we pray to God, “Thy will be done,” we're voicing our relief that, in this sense, God does do what he wills; and we're asking his involvement in all things to be made clearer to us.

Second, in heaven, God's desires are cherished by all, because God is their First Love. From the highest seraph to the lowliest saint there, all those in heaven love God more than anything else, including themselves. No angel in heaven, no saint in heaven, fails to love God before everything else. For all of them, their highest wish is that God's desires be fulfilled. Why? Because in loving God, they can see that God is supremely lovely and loving, and so in loving God, they love all things according to how God loves them. To hear that angels rejoice when sinners repent is no different than knowing that God desires sinners to repent – because no angel would rejoice except in what he can see that God desires (Luke 15:10). No saint in heaven does otherwise, either.

On earth, things are more messy. The psalmist tells us that “the heavens are the LORD's heavens, but the earth he has given to the children of man” (Psalm 115:16). Part of what that means is that on earth, it's possible for us to prefer our own desires over God's desires. We struggle to attach ourselves to God. Instead, we harbor disordered attachments to created goods. Maybe we're unduly attached to the rightness of our ideas, or the pride we take in our view of ourselves, or the appetites we long to satisfy. Maybe we're inordinately fond of coffee or chocolate or cheese or comfort or control. But for God's will to be done on earth, that has to stop. To repent and to become heavenly minded is the same thing, one early Christian said, as “taking pleasure in the will of God.”2 And that is who we need to be, even here on earth. We need to take pleasure in what God loves.

So when we pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we're asking God for the grace to change our disordered attachments and to deepen our love for him. We're begging to wish what he wishes, to want what he wants. We pray for him to stoke the flames of our desire in the ways that please him. And we know that whatever is “good and acceptable and perfect,” that's what God desires, that's “the will of God,” so we only have to discern the value in order to discern God's mind and heart (Romans 12:2). Everything else we do, everything else we wish, everything else we ask – it's all downstream from this.

Third, in heaven, God's decisions are embraced in submission and joy. Suppose God decides that, in heaven, the principalities rank beneath the cherubim. Does a principality complain? Does a principality try to take a bit more honor than God wishes to give? Hardly! No, the principalities embrace, in submission and joy, God's decision. So too, not one saint looks back over life's scars and doesn't thank God for how his will worked out in it all. All in heaven accept what God decides, seeing themselves that God's decisions are perfectly wise, perfectly just, perfectly perfect. Heaven is at no risk of rebellion, no risk of resentment, no risk of resistance.

Earth? Not so much. And partly that's because, where in heaven God has no need to will adverse judgment or affliction on those there, here on earth things get messy. On earth, God must be father to imperfect children, and must be the judge also of heinous sin. So, for instance, we know Peter's right when he tells us how the Lord “is not wishing that any should perish but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9) – that's what God antecedently wills. But despite that wish, since he's willed to give us free will ourselves, it sometimes happens that people perish. When the priest Eli's sons became hopelessly corrupt, we read that “it was the will of the LORD to put them to death” (1 Samuel 2:25). In a world of sin, God's will being done entails judgment.

There are also times on earth where we haven't sinned and aren't being judged, and yet God decides – again, out of love – to discipline us on earth in ways not needed for those in heaven: “He disciplines us for our good,” we read, “that we may share his holiness. For the moment, all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:10-11). God permits much to happen in our lives, and sometimes it's a reminder that this is a world we're not supposed to be content with, because it's broken, and he'd be doing us a disservice by letting us get so comfortable here that we mistake it for home. And in some cases, he allows innocents to suffer, because he wills to reserve a more abundant reward for them in heaven. Peter holds out the possibility that “God's will” is for us to “suffer for doing good” (1 Peter 3:17). That's one way to “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:20).

Whether in heaven or on earth, God's will is done when his decisions are accepted with submission. What does that look like here? It looks like when people, even though they don't understand the reason, nevertheless trust that God means it for good, even if he has to get that good out of sins that others commit against us. It looks like when people, even though the discipline is painful in the moment, nevertheless seize it as an opportunity to learn and grow. It looks like when people, even though their sin is being judged, nevertheless agree with the Judge and repent. It looks like Mary telling the angel, “Be it done to me in accordance with your word” (Luke 1:38). It looks like Jesus in the garden, his ears haunted by Isaiah's prophecy that “it was the will of the LORD to crush him” (Isaiah 53:10), and yet he declares, “Nevertheless, not as I will but as you will... If this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done” (Matthew 26:39-42).

In praying this prayer, then, we're asking God to soften every heart to his work. We're asking him to help people be responsive to his judgments. We're asking him to give all people a trust in what he's doing. We're asking him to give all people a receptivity toward what he allows into our lives, including opportunities not just to patiently endure but to inventively overcome. Wouldn't the earth be a vastly different place if people did as Peter said: “Let those who suffer according to God's will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (1 Peter 4:19)? For by learning to do this, we on earth would gain the same acceptance of God's will that the angels and saints have. That's what we ask. And we're asking God to move people to “give thanks in all circumstances,” knowing that such thankfulness is “the will of God” for us (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

Fourth, in heaven, God's design is revealed and understood. There's a reason prophets like Daniel, Zechariah, and John had angels filling them in on what the visions meant – it's because angels already had the inside scoop. That's the situation in heaven more generally. Even the lowliest and newest saint in heaven understands God's design a far sight better than I do! It's easy to see so much more from heaven. Correspondingly, it's harder to see from earth. But we do know some, because that was the Father's “gracious will” to reveal it (Matthew 11:25-26). In the Old Testament, to “do [God's] will” was to keep Israel “unstained by the world” (Ezra 10:11; James 1:27), preserving her mission to bring Christ into the world so that the world could be fulfilled and saved. When Christ came, he announced: “This is the will of my Father: that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:40) – God's will is his design for the salvation of the world, that the world would share in his own life. Paul added that God's will is a great mystery we're unpacking: “the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him – things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:9-10). To the extent we've heard this mystery of God's grand design for his whole creation, Peter calls us to “live the rest of the time in the flesh... for the will of God,” that is, for the sake of that design (1 Peter 4:2).

So when we pray to God, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we're asking Christ to open up to us his Scriptures by the voice of his Spirit and his Bride, and to unpack for us more and more of the Father's plan to unite all things, heavenly and earthly, in Christ. And we're asking God to fit our lives to that grand design and to help us live in the midst of the mystery that's unfolding.

Fifth, in heaven, God's demands are obeyed and God's decrees are carried out. Rather famously, angels are absolutely and perfectly responsive to God's demands and decrees. That's what they're for – that's what 'angel' means. It's coded into their definition. “Bless the LORD, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his word, obeying the voice of his word! Bless the LORD, all his hosts, his ministers who do his will!” (Psalm 103:20-21). If you're reading through the Bible, and a sentence starts with “The LORD commanded the angel, and...,” you don't need three guesses to figure out how the sentence is going to finish (1 Chronicles 21:27). Peter's disciple urged Christians to “consider the whole multitude of angels, how they stand and minister to his will.”3 And the same is no less true of humans in heaven. None of them ever reject God's demands. None of them ever ignore God's decrees. Whatever God speaks to them, they don't hesitate to do. I think a medieval bishop of Paris said it best: “Good people, in heaven the will of God is done perfectly, for angels, archangels, principalities, powers, virtues, thrones and dominions, cherubim and seraphim, patriarchs and prophets, apostles and martyrs, confessors and virgins, and all the chosen souls who are in heaven before God are obedient to him. They do his will and commandment perfectly; but there are many on earth who do such things as God does not want at all.”4

Sadly, he's right about the last part, too. On earth, God's demands are often rejected and God's decrees are often ignored. God tells us, “Hey, that fruit isn't yours,” and we start nibbling away. God tells us, “Worship just like this,” and we sculpt golden calves and dance with strange fire. God tells us, “I want you in Nineveh,” and we set sail for Tarshish. But even on earth, it doesn't have to be that way! We read how “Noah did all that the LORD commanded him” (Genesis 7:5), how “Abraham obeyed [God's] voice and kept [God's] commandments” (Genesis 26:5), how Moses and Aaron “did just as the LORD commanded them” (Exodus 7:6), how Jeremiah spoke “all that the LORD had commanded him to speak” (Jeremiah 26:8), and so on. Those are triumphant stories of God's will being done on earth. Above all, God's will was perfectly done by Jesus Christ, who said it was the very reason he'd come from heaven, to show heavenly obedience on earth (John 6:38). Jesus said it was what sustained him: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34).

And so too, for us and for all on the earth, when people do what God says, then we're doing his will. When God says “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction” (James 1:27), and then we do it, his will is being done on earth. When God tells us to “flee from idolatry” (1 Corinthians 10:4) and to “flee from sexual immorality” (1 Corinthians 6:18), and then we obey, his will is being done on earth. And when God tells us to “pursue what makes for peace” (Romans 14:19) and, where possible, to “live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18), and then people actually do that, there too is his will being done on earth.

So what here are we asking when we pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”? We're wanting that people in this world – ourselves included – would all just do what God says. We're applying worldwide the prayer of the psalmist: “Teach me to do your will, for you are my God!” (Psalm 143:10). We're praying that no one on earth, least of all us, would refuse or hesitate God's commands. For God doesn't hide what he wants us to do. He speaks plainly enough already to fill a lifetime with obedience. We're praying that I'd do what he told us to do, that you'd do what he told us to do, that your neighbor would do what he told us to do, that Putin would do what he told us to do, that everybody'd do what he told us all to do. If that happened, the world would find peace. The world would find love. The world would find Christ. But every step toward responsiveness to God's demands and decrees, is God's will being done on earth, and so is earth becoming more like heaven.

Sixth and lastly, in heaven, God is worshipped face-to-face by the perfectly holy – and that's what he ultimately wishes and wills. As Nehemiah prays: “You are the LORD, you alone..., and the host of heaven worships you” (Nehemiah 9:6). Jesus calls them “the holy angels” (Luke 9:26), and John sees that “all the angels were standing around the throne, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God” (Revelation 7:11). Nor is it different with the saints in heaven, the holy ones who “sing a new song before the throne” (Revelation 14:3), “a great multitude..., clothed in white robes..., crying out” in worship (Revelation 7:9-10). For “they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple” (Revelation 7:15).

That's what heaven is like, that's what heaven's all about. The perfectly holy will perfectly worship the perfect God while perfectly face-to-face with him. That's what God wants! That's what God designs! God ultimately wills to be surrounded by those who, in perfect holiness, never cease knowing him and never cease surrendering to his love in them and through them. That's the society of heaven, where knowledge and love can be made perfect for the perfect worship of God, from the holy ones to the Holy One.

And in praying for God's will to be done on earth just as in heaven, we're asking for God even now to empower our worship and our lives. We're asking him to sanctify us so that we may be truly and fully saints like those in heaven are. “For this is the will of God: your sanctification,” your being made truly and fully saints – that, and nothing less, is what God wants for you (1 Thessalonians 4:3)! And we're asking the Holy Spirit to join our earthly worship more and more to heaven's worship, and to make of them one thing, one act that unites things in heaven and things on earth in Christ. We're asking our Father to reveal himself to all the earth, unveiled and unobscured, just as he's seen in heaven. And we're asking God to help us serve him day and night on earth, and for his presence here to be no less than his presence in heaven.

The trouble is that, everywhere we go on earth, things fall short. We ask to worship God face-to-face, but he says, “Man shall not see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). We ask to be holy, but we're still vulnerable to change and sin. We ask to serve him day and night, but hours and days go by when our thoughts detach from God, so our service is interrupted. Sincere and successful as we can be, our worship yet has limits.

But what if it didn't? What if God could be worshipped on earth the same as he is in heaven? What would it look like if everyone on earth were a saint confirmed eternally in holiness, and if everyone on earth worshipped God as strongly as do the angels and saints in heaven, and if even here we could see God and live eternal life? What would you call that? What would you call heaven on earth? I'd call it the new creation! “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man! He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be their God” (Revelation 21:3). Heaven and earth will be a single seamless reality, open to all who dwell with God. And in that day, those living eternal life will be, as Jesus said, “equal to angels and will be sons of God” (Luke 20:36). Never again will one fall away or turn aside, not even a moment, from God's will.

That, ultimately, is what this is a prayer for. To pray that God's will be done on earth as in heaven is to pray that earth be perfectly conformed to heaven – to pray that earth be as healthy as heaven, as happy as heaven, as holy as heaven. That, after all, is God's ultimate design for his creation: to make it new and unite it all as one in Christ for eternity. And what prayer, then, could be more important than this prayer? For “the world is passing away with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:17). Amen!

1  Cyril of Jerusalem, Mystagogic Catecheses 5.6; Ambrose of Milan, Defense of David 5.20; Pseudo-Dionysius, Celestial Hierarchy 6.2. For their sources, see Isaiah 6:2 (seraphim); Isaiah 37:16 (cherubim); Ezekiel 1:4-14/10:15 ('living creatures' = cherubim); 1:15-21/10:9 ('wheels' = thrones); Colossians 1:16 (thrones, dominions, powers, principalities); 1 Peter 3:22 (angels, principalities, powers); Jude 9 (archangel); etc.

2  Theophilus of Antioch, To Autolycus 2.17

3  Clement of Rome, 1 Clement 34.5

4  Maurice de Sully, “Pater Noster,” in Jane Bliss, ed., An Anglo-Norman Reader (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2018), 325.

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